The Standing of Scholarship in America

A founding father of applied psychology expresses concern that permissiveness in the classroom has gone too far

All signs seem to point in the same direction. From the primary school to the university, from the kindergarten to the vocational life, there seems to arise in our day a demand for greater thoroughness and effort and serious concentration. A hundred symptoms indicate, and serious educators proclaim, that a turn of the road is near. There may have been a time- perhaps it is only a legend - when education had become ineffective through its formalism and rigidity. The children were forced by severe methods to do work repugnant to them. The prescribed studies of the college boys were dry and tiresome. It must have been a depressing kind of instruction in which the best energies of the youth were insistently subdued. A great reaction had to come. School-time was to be made a period of happiness, the child was to learn only what he liked, the college boy was to study only that which seemed interesting. Only that which appealed to the taste and to the attention was deemed worthy of the classroom. Instead of formal training, at last we had instruction which really opened to the boys and girls a gay-colored world where they might enjoy themselves to their heart's content. It was a period in which the children were no longer ordered, but begged and persuaded; in which the abundance of elective courses made a handsome volume out of the announcements of the smallest college; athletics flourished, and in the school all, with the exception of the teachers, had a good time.

But now in the zigzag movement of educational progress, a new countermovement seems imminent. We have been trying the national experiment long enough to test its results. We have seen the girls who have been educated in the high schools with "current events," and the boys who were no longer molested by the demand for Greek. But the outcome seemed more disappointing than ever. Every one who was not deceived by a showy exterior soon discovered the mental flabbiness and superficiality which resulted from the go-as-you-please methods. We began to feel that those who had never learned to obey never really became their own masters; those who had never trained their attention by forcing their will toward that which is unattractive had to learn by severe disappointments later that a large part of every life's work must be drudgery. The youth left the school with a hundred things in their minds, but without any power of intellectual self discipline.

Our public life reflects this lack everywhere. The newspapers and magazines, the theatres and the social-reform movements, are more and more made for a public which looks only to be entertained, and which has lost the power of sustained attention to that which is not attractive in itself; and the nation slowly begins to realize that such a mental state of the community is the natural soil for every kind of moral weed. Thoroughness is only another form of conscientiousness. He who early acquires the habit of inaccuracy and carelessness will never have the energy to work against evil where it is easier and more convenient to let things go as they will.

We stand only at the beginning of this new reaction, but we already hear from many sides that more serious discipline and training and effort must be secured. This coincides with the fact that educational psychology, since it has entered into the stage of careful experimental work, has brushed away the widespread prejudices regarding the training of mental powers. The theorists who advocated the coddling education had made much of the fact that no training can really change the mental powers of the individual. A bad memory never becomes a good one. Experimental psychology has demonstrated the fallacy of such pet ideas. Memory and attention, apperception and reasoning, feeling and emotion, effort and will, can be remoulded by a well-directed education; and this development of the mental powers may easily appear to many as a more important gain than any addition to the stored-up knowledge of facts. But the community on the whole is not eager to consult the experimental psychologist: from the deepest needs of social life the new longing has arisen.

If the nation is not to suffer by a cheap complacency, and the triumph of ostentatious mediocrity, the whole educational life must be filled with a new spirit of devotion to serious tasks. The commencement addresses of the leading men of the country have given fervent expression to this instinctive demand of the nation this year. So far as the colleges are concerned, one imperative change stands in the centre of every platform: scholarship must receive a more dignified standing in the eyes of the undergraduates. The constant appeal to the mere liking of child. and boy and adolescent has finally made the side-shows more important than the real arena. The university administrations practically everywhere recognize such a reform as a most urgent need. Means must be found to effect a complete revision in the views of the average students. So long as the best human material in our colleges considers it as more or less below its level to exert effort on its studies; so long as it gladly leaves the high marks to the second-rate grinds, and considers it the part of a real gentleman to spend four college years with work done well enough not to be dismissed, and poorly enough never to excel, there is something vitally wrong in the academic atmosphere.

Some seem inclined to think that the whole blame belongs to athletics. If the interest in intercollegiate sport is allowed to take hysteric character, and if the successful college athlete stands in the limelight of publicity, it appears necessary that the devotee of quiet scholarship should remain unnoticed in the dark, and that his modest career should not attract the energetic fellow. Whatever the reasons may be, many suggestions for reform have been made. Perhaps none may more quickly lead to an improvement than the much-discussed plan of introducing a stronger element of competition into the scholarly sphere, and thus to use for intellectual purposes those levers which have been so effective in the field of sport. The effort to put the highest energy into scholarship has not reached its ideal form so long as it is controlled by the hope of surpassing a rival. That for which we must aim is certainly a more genuine enthusiasm for intellectual efficiency. And yet the present situation would not only excuse, but really demand the fullest possible play of these secondary motives. If we can roster scholarship by an appeal to the spirit of rivalry, by all means let us use it. We may hope as soon as better traditions have been formed, and higher opinions have been spread, the interest in the serious work will replace the motives of vanity. As soon as the finest men of the college turn, from whatever motives, with their full strength toward their class-work, the masses may follow, and higher and higher ambitions will be developed.

Of course, no one can overlook some intrinsic difficulties in the way of such plans. No artificial premium can focus the successful scholar that same amount of flattering interest and notoriety which the athletic victory easily yields. The difference lies simply in the fact that the student's athletic achievement represents, in that little field, a performance which may be compared with the very best. The scholarly work of the undergraduate, on the other hand, at its highest point necessarily remains nothing but praiseworthy exercise, incomparable with the achievement of great scholars. The student football-player may win a world's record; the student scholar in the best case may justify noble hopes, but his achievement will be surpassed by professional scholars every day.

But the real difficulties in the transformation of the present state, after all, lie much deeper. Certainly, the faculties of the universities ought not to leave anything undone which may shift the centre of gravity in the little encircled academic world. But however high the hopes may be, we ought not to underestimate the much greater difficulties which have their origin outside of this college world. May it not be an illusion to believe that the deplorable lack of appreciation for scholarship of students can ever be fundamentally changed so long as the corresponding ideas in the great world outside of the college campus are not thoroughly revised? No college faculty can change situations on the campus, if they are simply symptoms and results of the conditions in our whole social organization. The scholarship of the students will never be fully appreciated by the most vital men in college so long as public opinion does not back them; that is, so long as scholarship has no real standing in the American Community.

If we are sincere, we ought not to overlook the fact that the scholar, as such, has no position in public opinion which corresponds to the true value of his achievement. The foreigner feels at once this difference between the Americans and the Europeans. The other day we mourned the death of Simon Newcomb. There seems to be a general agreement that astronomy is the one science in which America has been in the first rank of the world, and that Newcomb was the greatest American astronomer. Yet his death did not bring the slightest ripple of excitement. The death of the manager of the professional baseball games interested the country rather more. Public opinion did not show the slightest consciousness of an incomparable loss at the hour when the nation's greatest scholar closed his eyes. And if I compare it with that, deep national mourning with which the whole German nation grieved at the loss of men like Helmholtz and Mornmsen and Virchow, and many another, the contrast becomes most significant.

When the president of Harvard University gave up his administrative work, the old Harvard students and the whole country enthusiastically brought to him the highest thanks which he so fully deserved. But when, the year before, William James left Harvard, the most famous scholar who has worked in this Harvard generation, the event passed by like a routine matter. At the commencement festivities every speaker spoke of the departing administrative officer, but no one thought of the departing scholar. And that exactly expresses the general feeling.

It was said with emphasis the other day that the strength of the American university lies in its graduates. In Germany, for instance, inside and outside of the academic circles, every one would take it as a matter of course that the strength of a university lies exclusively in the professors; and moreover in the professors as scholars. If I think back to my student days in my fatherland, the greatest events of those happy years were the festivities and torchlight processions which we boys organized for our great professors when they declined a call to another university. Their work and their fame in the world of scholarship was our greatest pride. For their sake we had selected one or the other alma mater. The American students feel this pride and attachment only for the institution as such; the individual scholars there are to them merely the appointed teachers; they may like them as teachers, but consider their scholarly achievement a private affair.

A very characteristic symptom of the situation is the prevalent opinion that as a matter of course every professor is ready to become a college president. Again and again scholars from most widely different fields are discussed for presidencies, even in places where they would have to give up their scholarly work and be obliged to go over entirely into administrative work. It is evident that such a change lies well in the line of men whose scholarship refers to government or economics or similar subjects. But if a scholar of Greek or mathematics is treated as an equally natural candidate, it clearly indicates that the public does not consider the university professor primarily as a productive scholar, but essentially as an officer of the institution. To change from a professorship to a presidency then appears as a kind of promotion, while in reality it means a change of profession.

In both the United States and Germany the scholars are almost exclusively university professors, in striking contrast to France and England, where many of the greatest scholars have always been outside of the universities. But this personal union has had different effects in the two countries. In Germany, the exultant respect for scholarship raised the career of the mere university professor; in America, by the lack of respect for scholarship, the standing of the individual scholar has on the whole come to be determined by his administrative position in the universities. Those who have a kind of personal reputation, independent of their services to the institutions, owe it as a rule to extraneous features. Perhaps they make a practical discovery, or give eloquent popular lectures, master a picturesque epigrammatic style, or like to write magazine articles in their leisure hours; in a word, they earn a reputation by their by-products, in spite of their scholarship.

 Again, it would be shortsighted to isolate this feature of public opinion from the whole social physiognomy. This relatively low standing of the scholar's work very naturally resulted from the whole make-up of public opinion. It is certainly not a necessary part of democracy, but it has been a characteristic element in the development of American public life, that every one feels himself a judge of everything, every one is fit for every place, and every one knows what is worth while in life. There is no one who can appeal so little to such a court of judges as the scholar. He has nothing to show. Even the greatest scholar could not point to a fair success, when the success is to be measured in commercial terms. Any clever lawyer or skillful physician would greatly outshine him - not to speak of the banker and the broker. He cannot show his success in that popularity or notoriety which comes to the politician or the literary man or the administrator or the athlete. His work interests a few score of colleagues. Even the external conditions do not furnish those official labels by which the high opinion of the few who know is made widely visible to the crowd- the English baronetcies for the leading scholars, the governmental decorations and titles. Men whose names may be among the noblest assets of the United States in future centuries, at a time when the names of the wheat kings and railroad kings will be forgotten, thus remain negligible quantities in the public opinion of to-day. 

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